Sunday, April 1, 2018

Big mystery

Today is the day the Christians celebrate the central mystery and dogma of their cult.  And a very mysterious mystery it is, too, if you think about it.

Christians never do. They study it, they argue about it, they kill each other when they disagree about it; but they never think about it. If you do think about it, some obvious problems present themselves and by the end of this post I will have cleared up one of them: Who wrote the gospels?

First, though, we have to set up some parameters concerning the nature of the Hebrew Messiah and the historicity of Jesus.

Bart Ehrman, a professor at the University of North Carolina, is one of the best-known popularizers of biblical interpretation in America today, and according to him almost no scholars doubt that Jesus was an individual who lived about 2,000 years ago.

He does not. however, describe this individual in any identifiable way. If we think of him as the man who wandered around Palestine bringing people back from the dead, then obviously no such person existed.  If, however, we think of him as a schizophrenic who attributed the voices in his head to his deity and wandered around Palestine telling people what he heard, then obviously not just one but probably dozens or even hundreds of such people existed.

We can be sure of that because tens of thousands of such people exist in the United States right now. I have met several of them myself.

It is unclear whether the Jesus figure -- whether he really existed or was just concocted by clever editors from urban legends of the time -- claimed to be the Hebrew Messiah, and this is not surprising because the Hebrew Bible is no clearer about the identifiable characteristics of the Messiah than Professor Ehrman is about the identifiable characteristics of Jesus.

All we have to go on comes from the five gospels. I say five because that is how the Jesus Seminar characterized the four gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. Twenty-five years ago the Jesus Seminar, which was comprised of about 150 academic New Testament scholars in America, attempted to discern which parts of the five gospels could be confidently attributed to the historical Jesus that they accepted, rather uncritically. I believe it is generally agreed that the Jesus Seminar failed, and I found their methods and conclusions unpersuasive. (They were democratic; they voted on which parts were authentic. Not intellectually rigorous, which is a theme that will come up again several times in this post.)

If we start from the position that Jesus did think he was the Messiah, we must ask what sort of Messiah he was, and that is where the big mystery arises.

The Old Testament does not really define a messiah, but we can use information in it to make a firm prediction of what the Messiah was not going to be.

It is obvious that no Jew living 2,000 years ago and relying on the teachings of his tribal cult would have imagined that the Messiah was going to be the (or a) child of his tribal deity, still less that his tribal deity would have copulated with a human to produce a demigod.

There is simply no purchase in the Hebrew Bible for that sort of idea. We may ask then where the editors who put together the New Testament stories could have found such an idea, and the answer is  obvious: anywhere but in the Jewish tradition.

The notion that there were gods who gave birth to other gods was fundamental in the cults of all the people surrounding the Hebrews, and the notion that male gods copulated with human women to produce demigods was especially common in the Greek cults.

It is a notable fact that although it is assumed that Jesus and his disciples spoke Aramaic, and it is usually thought that they did not have the education that would have given them other languages as well, all the New Testament writings are in Greek.

What a surprise! The conclusion that stares us in the face but that biblical scholars are unwilling to think is that the authors or editors of the Christian sacred texts were not Jews. They must have been Greeks.

That there were more than one of them is commonly agreed by scholars, who have noticed that some of the editors were greatly concerned with Jewish rituals and others were indifferent.

We still do not know who these men were, whether they were hellenized Jews, Greeks who had been exposed to Jewish teachings or something else.

It is the fashion nowadays among biblical scholars to emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus and of the earliest Christians. When I was younger and Christians were more self-confident and it was still fashionable to disdain Jews, the novelty and separateness of Christianity were emphasized.

Well, from a Jewish perspective Christianity was certainly novel. No Jew ever, 2,000 years ago or now, would have imagined a Messiah who was another god who had a human mother and Adonai for a father.


  1. The Jewish point of view was a bit more complex than that:

    As for the 'historicity' of Jesus and the whole passion, this may be a good and concise list to start with (just to add another point of view to your post):

  2. Not too impressed with Swamidass when he starts with this:

    'During just the first few centuries, it spread without political or military power, prevailing against the ruthless efforts of dedicated, organized and violent opposition. '

    It didn't do that. R.L. Fox estimates (in 'Pagans and Christians') that no more than 3% of the inhabitants of the Roman Empire chose Christianity before the Edict of Milan. After that, of course, ruthless power and violence was on the side of Christianity.

    My point is not whether Jews embraced Jesus as their Messiah -- overwhelmingly they did not -- but that the story we tell about him is not a Jewish story. If you read the OT you'll notice that Jews were enthusiastic adopters of foreign cults.

  3. As for Neuhaus, this statement:

    “Jews and Christians worship the same God. Before the rise of Christianity, Jews were the only worshipers of the God of Israel. But Christians also worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, creator of heaven and earth."

    cannot be reconciled with a demigod who is half-human. That is no part of the cult of Yahweh.

    Familiarity and a refusal to read the texts for what they say allows Christians and Jews -- and, forsooth, Muslims -- to say they worship the same god; but obviously they do not. (Allah does not behave as Yahweh behaves; he does not instruct his people. And the Trinity is anathema to Allah worshippers.)

    My favorite story about the propensity of certain types of believers to persuade themselves that others believe as they believe comes from Da Gama's voyage to Calicut. He expected to find Christians and he and his men worshipped with what they took to be local Christians daily for 6 months. it was really a kshatriya temple, about as far from the purported message of Jesus as you can get.